Jan 15, 2018

Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn – masters of mutton …and much more

It’s no secret to anyone who browses this blog that I love my barbecue.  I’m no culinary expert; I’m just a commoner who loves to eat the best each region I visit has to offer.  That means if I’m near Memphis, I’m craving pork ribs.  If I’m in the Carolinas, I’m seeking out the pulled pork.  Texas hill country?  Bring on the brisket.  And Kansas City does no barbecue better than its burnt ends. 

Yes, it seems like every region famous for its barbecue has a specialty.  And if you’ve never been to western Kentucky, you might be surprised to find a vibrant barbecue culture all its own. But while they do the standard pork, beef and chicken quite well, the star attraction is something quite different – they make the most out of barbecued mutton. 

Mutton is simply older sheep than lamb, but if you barbecue it right, the meat loses any toughness one might associate with older livestock, the gaminess is made mellow and taste is as moist as barbecue gets. 

Perhaps no place in western Kentucky is more famous for its mutton – or barbecues it better – than the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro. 

Its reputation has served it well.  What started out as a 30-seat diner in 1963 has grown into a 350-seat restaurant with several dining rooms and plenty of parking for any bus or large group that happens to be passing through. It’s also easy to get to, just slightly off the U.S. Highway 60 bypass around Owensboro on Kentucky Route 80.

Once you arrive, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re someplace special.  The writing – as in accolades – are literally on the wall in the entranceway.

Seating is aplenty, as one would expect with a popular buffet.  I chose a booth, but there are certainly plenty of table options in dining room with the fireplace … it was good enough for Andrew Zimmern when he filmed his feast here.

I suppose if you don’t come with the intention of not eating for the rest of the day, you’ll find plenty of entrée choices on the menu besides the buffet – even a few southern staples beyond the irresistible barbecue – but why kid yourself?  You really need to order the buffet the first time here.  Sample everything you can. And if you need any more convincing, just do what I did and ask your waitress. As a 28-year veteran of the place, she had every item memorized a long time ago.

Now that that’s settled, step up and follow the signs.

The salad bar will get you off to a good start … just don’t overdo it thinking you’re going to try to eat healthy.  Save that goal for another day.  Just make sure you sample their pickled beets – they’re among the best I’ve ever had.  

If you have to skip something, pass the salad bar up, and head straight for the burgoo crock.  If you’re unfamiliar with burgoo, this is a must-try stew.  Moonlite’s burgoo is reminiscent of Brunswick stew but better, I think, because the mutton in it provides just enough gaminess and fattiness to make every spoonful mouthwatering good.  And while it’s not super thick like some community burgoos you’ll find in central Illinois’ “burgoo belt,” there’s an excellent combination of shredded meats in every bite.

You’ll find more mutton, of course, on the main serving line, along with other hickory-smoked barbecue standards – ribs, pork, chicken and brisket.  As you pile up your plate, it won’t take long to realize it’s much more than mutton that keeps Moonlite enormously popular with locals and foodies alike.  It’s outstanding country cooking in every main entrée and side dish they serve.  My grandmother – a Kentucky hillbilly and proud of it – would have loved this spread. 

It’s easy to see why:  My Round One consisted of fall-off-the-bone pork ribs coated in Moonlite’s tangy sauce; shredded mutton; authentic slow-cooked cream-style corn; lima beans (a personal favorite of Grandma Sally’s); smooth and creamy mac and cheese – with just the right amount of toasted cheese on top; green beans as good as grandma’s – smothered in a pork fat pot liquor; and perfectly textured fried apples – soft but not mushy, and a fair amount of cinnamon in every bite.

Even after one overloaded plate, there were so many more selections on the salad bar that I had to go back for Round Two:  Second helpings of green beans, ribs and shredded mutton, along with chopped mutton (which I think I actually liked better for its moistness and texture); stewed okra (perhaps the only underwhelming dish I tried that day); baked beans; the softest candied carrots I’ve ever bitten into – how they hold their shape I’ll never know; cole slaw and potato salad (Why feast on  barbecue if you don’t have at least a sampling of baked beans, slaw and potato salad?). 

And even though I’m not much of a dessert lover, I felt I had to end my first Moonlite experience with a sampling of their signature banana salad.  I have to admit, it’s pretty darn good.  The chopped peanuts sprinkled throughout give the dish a nice crunchy complement to the creamy bananas.

As you head out to pay, you’ll almost certainly notice the take-home counter – just in case you want to take some of their outstanding product home with you or, like me, buy a souvenir.  I tried some of Moonlite’s Very Hot Sauce on my mutton and thought it was excellent and a little unlike any other hot sauce I’ve sampled.  Maybe it’s the vodka they put in it.

It’s just my opinion, but if you make the trip to Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, you’ll be dining at barbecue history, and you definitely won’t leave hungry.  And give their mutton a try.  I’ve had other barbecue mutton in the western Kentucky area, and none compares as favorably as what you’ll find here. 


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog. I really like it.

John Watts said...

Thanks for the comment. I would have approved it sooner, but I was on the road (as usual). I always welcome feedback!!

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